The Mercy: Poems

Philip Levine, Author
Philip Levine, Author Alfred A. Knopf $22 (96p) ISBN 978-0-375-40138-1
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""Work was something that thrived on fire, that without/ fire couldn't catch its breath or hang on for life,"" Levine recalls of the working-class Detroit of his childhood. This 18th collection continues a career-long project of lending permanence to modern, work-governed life. Typically, Levine tirelessly uncovers ""the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds,"" slightly tempering a bitter reality with the steady, romantic presence of ""the wind/ bringing hope in the morning/ and carrying off our exhaust / as the light goes each evening."" The result is an inclusive archive of American experience sympathetically human, dramatized in his signature persona poems like ""After Leviticus"" and ""The Evening Turned Its Back Upon Her Voice,"" which infuse fleeting things (""the few pale tulips and irises""; ""salami cut so thin/ the light shone through the slices"") with the power to shape self-awareness. While he shares with James Wright the rare ability to honor the dignity of human labor, this volume, more than the last two (The Simple Truth; What Work Is), does so to the near banishment of much else--compelling phrasing, avoidance of the trite. There is some respite, however, at the volume's end, where an account of his mother's ocean journey to America on ""The Mercy"" is followed by her private funeral, in ""The Secret"": ""you weren't/ there as you're not in this haze,/ nor in the first evening breeze."" (Mar.)
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